Born a Crime

Born a Crime Summary and Analysis of Chapters 17-18


Noah reflects on how criminal activity was rampant in Alexandra, and how his mother distrusted him spending time there. One day when Noah is about nineteen, he wants to go and purchase some cheap mobile phones in order to resell them. The only way he can get to the shop is by driving, so he takes a rundown old car from his stepfather's shop and puts a random license plate on it. Along the way, he gets pulled over, and when the plates don't match the registration, he is arrested on suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle. Noah could clear up the situation by notifying his parents, but he is more afraid of what will happen when they find out. He does call his cousin to tell him what happened, and then he resigns himself to spending the night in jail.

Noah decides that rather than risking a bail hearing, he will hire a defense attorney, so he asks a friend to borrow money from his father. He keeps apart from the other men in jail, and he pretends to be tougher than he actually is. He's surprised to find that he doesn't find life in jail as bad as he anticipated. He even helps another man who comes into the jail by translating for him. After a week, Noah attends his bail hearing, pays his bail, and is free to go until his trial date. When he returns home, he plans to never tell his mother what happened, but it quickly becomes clear that she had found out what happened from the father of his friend and had arranged to pay his bail and the fee for his lawyer.

Noah recollects when he was a young child and his mother first met Abel, who was working as a mechanic at a local repair shop. At first, Noah thinks Abel is charming, but when his mother tells him that they plan to marry, he warns her not to do it. However, Patricia and Abel marry anyways, and she gives birth to their son, Andrew, about a year later. After Andrew's birth, the family travels to a rural area traditionally inhabited by the Tsonga people to meet Abel's extended family. In this area, traditional gender roles are rigidly enforced, but Patricia ignores them and continues to be her strong-willed, independent self. After that, tension begins to appear between her and Abel. Abel is also harsh with Noah because he exists as a reminder that Patricia had a life before she married him.

Over time, Abel grows more aggressive as he drinks more heavily. The first time Abel hits Patricia, he has come home drunk and carelessly set the house on fire. When Patricia gets angry with him, he hits her. Enraged, she goes to the police, but they refuse to take her seriously and her own mother encourages her to reunite with Abel. Abel is not violent again for a long period of time, but he eventually hits her again. Abel's economic situation is also tumultuous: he is a very skilled mechanic, and Patricia helps him find the money to buy his own shop. However, the business struggles and the young family moves into the shop, with Noah being forced to spend all his free time helping out. They live in extreme poverty at times, until Patricia quits her job to spend all her time turning the business around. Things start to improve, but Abel is angry that his wife is taking such an active role in the business. Patricia goes back to work and they sell the business, using a small amount of money to buy the house in Highlands North. She and Abel legally divorce so that her credit and finances will not be impacted by his bad decisions, but they continue to live together and she supports him financially with her salary.

Eventually, Abel starts to hit Noah, leaving Noah very afraid and anxious to avoid his stepfather. The tension between them leads to him moving out when he completes high school, but he keeps in close contact with his mother. As the relationship between Patricia and Abel deteriorates, Noah anticipates that his mother will leave him as soon as Andrew is older. Patricia unexpectedly finds herself pregnant with a third child, which leaves Noah angry and frustrated. After the birth of Isaac, Abel continues to be abusive and Patricia moves herself and her young sons into a separate building on the property. Noah is furious that she won't end the relationship, so he effectively cuts ties with his mother. His own career is starting to take off, and he moves in with his cousin.

In time, Patricia does move into her own house and remarry, but she continues to be in contact with Abel because of the children they share. One day, Noah is astonished to receive a phone call from his brother Andrew and learn that his mother has been shot by Abel. Panicked, he hurries to the hospital where he learns that Abel had shown up at Patricia's house and started shooting. He shot her first in the leg, then the gun misfired a number of times, and then he shot her in the head. Noah will later find out that after Andrew raced to the hospital with his mother, Abel took Isaac and drove around visiting people, announcing his intention to kill himself. He was finally persuaded not to do so and went to the police station to turn himself in.

At the hospital, doctors are hesitant to treat Patricia because she doesn't have health insurance, but Noah promises to pay her bills. Miraculously, her injuries turn to be minor. No one can explain why the gun misfired, but Patricia believes that God intervened on her behalf. Abel receives only probation, never serves any jail time, and continues to live in Johannesburg as a free man. Noah ends his memoir reflecting on the deep love and unshakeable bond he shares with his mother.


Noah's memoir is not presented in a strictly chronological structure, creating a more fluid, casual, and conversational tone. As a result, in the memoir's final section, he returns to some incidents from his earlier childhood to give context for the history of his mother's relationship with Abel. Up until this point, Abel's presence in the memoir has been vague. Perhaps Noah has wanted to control how much of a role Abel has in his memories and his story, and has therefore tried to minimize his stepfather's presence in the memoir. However, in order to provide context for the memoir's climactic moment, Noah has to dwell on the threatening presence Abel has been for so long. He never fully trusted Abel, and over time, Abel's behavior only became more dangerous.

Abel's relationship with Patricia includes physical abuse, financial abuse, controlling behavior, and alcoholism. In most other areas of her life, Patricia's intelligence, confidence, and ability to stand up for herself have served her well. It has allowed her to build a family with Noah, set up a successful career, and raise an intelligent and confident son. Yet within her marriage, these qualities work against her. Abel feels emasculated by her refusal to be an obedient and traditional wife, especially after she embarrasses him in front of his extended family. She tries to support his talents and ambitions, but he does not want to see his wife recognized for being intelligent and competent. While Noah has benefited from his mother's talents and ambition, Abel refuses to let Patricia be a full partner to him.

Despite obviously being frustrated with Abel and aware of his flaws, Patricia resists leaving him for a long time. The reasons for this are complex. South African society tends to shrug off domestic violence or even condone a man's right to "discipline" his wife. Although Patricia immediately goes to the police the first time Abel hits her, they are not interested in helping her. This incident foreshadows how, later on, Abel will not receive jail time even after shooting her in the head. This incident confirms that Patricia is on her own when it comes to coping with her abusive relationship. Her mother's reaction is also unsupportive: Noah's grandmother points out that her own husband hit her and remarks that this is just what life is like for women. This reaction shows how intergenerational trauma can be passed down, mirroring how the suffering of apartheid can also be normalized and accepted.

Patricia's instinct that Abel will lash out if she leaves him proves correct. She finally moves out and forms a new relationship but Abel tries to kill her, blaming her for ruining his life. While Noah has always loved his mother, the prospect of losing her clarifies just how much she means to him. He feels angry and helpless that he couldn't protect her, but he does what he can by paying her medical bills. Noah shows courageous honesty in admitting that he hesitates over the prospect of signing up for a lifetime of debt, but his love for his mother wins out. Patricia's luck—or, as she sees it, her faith—means that a very serious incident results in only minor injuries. Ending the memoir with a joking exchange between mother and son shows that no matter what dark incidents happen to them, they are each other partners in resilience and hope.